There are many problems that arise when trying to review an album such as Putamayo Presents Mali. The first problem, and the most obvious, is that I don’t speak, or even recognize when I’m hearing, Arabic, Bambara, or any of the other languages these songs may be sung in. My linguistic shortcomings alone ensure that my opinion of the music is going to be informed by a certain amount of emotional guesswork. If a song sounds sad, I can only assume it’s sad. No irony, no lyrical humour, no puns. For better or worse, the response to the music is going to be far more emotional than analytical.
The conceptual basis of an album like this is also problematic. Pretending that an accurate musical representation of a country can come from eleven songs seems at best reductive, at worst maddeningly frustrating. Mali is a musically and culturally diverse nation. Almost every track feels like a signpost pointing me in a direction I’d like to travel, but then the song ends and I must keep moving. It is a bewildering experience. The driving Berber blues of Tinariwen seem completely removed from the polished disco funk of Issa Bagayogo, which itself seems a country apart from the trippy Youssou vibe of Tom Diakité. When the unifying factor of a sampler album like this is diversity, there are so many questions left unanswered and so many avenues left unexplored that the effect is something like having a meal that consists only of appetizers.
Perhaps it’s foolish of me to expect anything other than a simplistic treatment from the folks at Putamayo. Whoever came up with the slogan printed on the back cover of the album deserves a raise because the words do a perfect job of capturing the essence of Putamayo’s musical mission. “Putamayo World Music—Guaranteed to make you feel good.” This company’s not interested in elucidating cultural connections or playing the role of intelligent archivist. Nope, all they want to do is make you feel good. A soundtrack to unencumbered dinner party hedonism.
Feeling good is something that’s easily accomplished when listening to the music on this disc as there’s not a weak track. Pleasure is afforded the listener in a myriad of ways: whether it’s the faint reggae lilt of Ramatou Diakité‘s “Gembi” or the beguiling mixture of ancient and modern musical technologies on Mamou Sidibé‘s “Bassa Kele”. Unfortunately, my own naiveté tempers some of the joy I get solely from listening. My inability to respond to the music on little more than an immediate sensory level leaves me feeling like a large piece of the puzzle is missing; which it undoubtedly is. That the promotional material accompanying my copy of the album mentioned that Tinariwen’s contribution, “Amassakoul ‘N’ Ténéré”, “served as the musical soundtrack to a fierce fight against discrimination” caused me to feel slightly sheepish after I had already listened to the track five times and determined its hypnotic guitars to be the chief feature. What I thought was candy had turned out to be meat.
Imagine if the cultural positions were reversed. What if, in a far-off country, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye were packaged just as feel-good exemplars of “indigenous” American music? The funky rhythms and stridently beautiful singing would still register, but the social raison d’etre of such incisive music would be largely obscured. Both my own inadequacies as a cultural commentator and Putamayo’s Disney-fied presentation have likely robbed this music of a source of its power. It’s not as if we must all be ethnomusicologists to enjoy foreign music, but the way that I, and I suspect most affluent westerners, listen to this kind of music makes it nearly impossible to distinguish a booty call from a call to arms.
To be fair, Putamayo will donate a portion of the proceeds from the sales of the album to Oxfam America’s relief efforts in Mali, but I do wish that rather than include recipes for meat in peanut sauce, Putamayo made some effort to educate the listeners about the context and meaning of this wonderful music and therefore lessen any inclinations we may feel to treat Malian musicians as mere trendy exotica.